Hurricane Sandy has blown President Obama and Mitt Romney off the campaign trail today, with the president returning home from Florida to manage emergency relief efforts from Washington and his Republican challenger scrapping scheduled rallies in deference to the dangerous storm.
Obama held a news conference today to assure Americans that his administration was ready to deal with Sandy. He dismissed a question asking how the storm was affecting his campaign.
"I am not worried at this point on the impact on the election. I'm worried about the impact on families and our first responders," the president said. "The election will take care of itself next week," he added.
But even as the candidates pledge their concern and support to the millions of Americans faced with potentially deadly flooding and furious wind gusts, their competition is churning on.
"Ironically, after each candidate spent a billion dollars on this campaign, the most effective messaging on TVs may be free," John Hudak, a Governance Studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, told ABC News today.
By Sunday and into this morning, with the hurricane already kicking up waves along the Eastern seaboard, the campaigns were calibrating their public statements to match the sense of danger making its way north along the coast.
"Gov. Romney believes this is a time for the nation and its leaders to come together to focus on those Americans who are in harm's way," spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said in an email late this morning. The campaign had previously revealed that fundraising emails to supporters in Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York had been suspended until the storm passes.
Romney will hold a rally in Iowa today, but his campaign has canceled 15 other events over several days.
"The risks for Romney are huge," Hudak said. "His challenge is to remain relevant and not sit idly by while the president shows empathy and leadership… He needs to ride out the storm and hope he doesn't endure too much damage."
"The president will return to Washington to monitor the preparations for and response to Hurricane Sandy," Jay Carney, the White House press secretary said this morning. Obama, who arrived home a few hours later, is expected to remain there managing relief efforts from the Situation Room, according to an aide.
Obama faces a unique set of challenges, but unlike Romney, he's also been presented with an unexpected opportunity to advertise his presidential bona fides.
"If the president performs well, the coverage will be positive and may be the best advertising of the entire campaign," Hudak said, while also noting the potential downside.
"If the president performs poorly," he said, "that coverage will be devastating for the president and help Gov. Romney."
Beyond shaping perceptions, there is the very real concern that Hurricane Sandy will keep early voters away from the polls. In Virginia, the State Board of Elections has closed 21 offices in both Democratic and Republican-leaning counties. The campaigns will have to adjust their strategies to cope.
"The storm creates incentive for 'get out the vote' efforts in Virginia to focus on central and western parts of the state, where voters will be more accessible and more open to [campaigning]," Dan Palazzolo, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond, wrote in an email.
And the gamesmanship won't pass with the squall. "Many people in Virginia are already tired of the campaign and will be busy cleaning up and dealing with power issues from the storm," Palazzolo said. "Independent voters, in particular, will be less patient with the logistical obstacles that go with campaign visits."
North Carolina has also shuttered a number of voting stations, but high density centers like Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte, and the surrounding suburbs, are expected to avoid the brunt of the storm and remain open for business going forward.
With the candidates' every word being monitored for what opponents detect as the slightest bit of insensitivity, the campaigns are likely to lean even more heavily on surrogates to deliver the sharp elbows over the next two days.
"We're coming down to the 11th hour," former President Clinton said Sunday in Connecticut, where he was campaigning for Senate hopeful Chris Murphy. "We're facing a violent storm. It's nothing compared to the storm we'll face if you don't make the right decision in this election."